When God Breaks a Promise – Psalm 89

When God Breaks a Promise – Psalm 89

                                                                                                                        KCC Jan 2011

Turn to Ps 89.  This psalm tells God that he broke a promise.  It says that near the end of the psalm, and the psalm ends without that problem being fixed.

How do we tell God that he has not kept a promise?  I don’t know of another place in the Bible that takes on that topic directly.  But Ps 89 does. 

I am not assuming that you all came here this morning, wondering how to tell God that he has broken a promise.  Maybe some are, but generally not.  We’ll go over this psalm because it opens up some new territory in the relationship between God and his people. 

The psalm begins I will sing of the love of the LORD forever, with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations.  So don’t listen to this psalm just as to someone else speaking to God.  I will sing.  Imagine yourselfsaying all this to God.

Ps 89 is based on two turning points in Israel’s history.  The first is in 2 Samuel 7, when God promised King David that someone from his family would rule Israel forever. 

Even if David’s descendant did what was wrong, God would punish him, but God said clearly that he would never take his love away from David’s descendant who was king.  God said this to David early in King David’s reign, about the year 1,000 BCE.

The second turning point happened about 400 years later, when the Babylonians attacked Jerusalem and took David’s ruling descendant to Babylon in chains.  That happened to Jehoiachin, when he was 18 years old.  See the end of 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles.

So, for 400 years David and his descendants were kings in Jerusalem, and then it ended.  This psalm is built around God’s early promise, and then what happened later.

Psalm 89 divides into thirds.  In the first third the psalm praises God for being the real king in heaven.  The first two verses make two points, and make each of them twice: the LORD’s love lasts forever, and he is completely faithful.  Watch for those themes right through the psalm.  God’s love (hesed) lasts forever, and he is utterly faithful, reliable.

1 I will sing of the LORD’s great love forever
   with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known 
   through all generations. 
2 I will declare that your love stands firm forever
   that you have established your faithfulness in heaven itself. 

3 You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one, 
   I have sworn to David my servant, 
4 ‘I will establish your line forever 
   and make your throne firm through all generations.’”

 5 The heavens praise your wonders, LORD, 
   your faithfulness too, in the assembly of the holy ones. 
6 For who in the skies above can compare with the L
   Who is like the L
ORD among the heavenly beings? 
7 In the council of the holy ones God is greatly feared; 
   he is more awesome than all who surround him. 
8 Who is like you, L
ORD God Almighty? 
   You, L
ORD, are mighty, and your faithfulness surrounds you.

 9 You rule over the surging sea; 
   when its waves mount up, you still them. 
10 You crushed Rahab like one of the slain;
[“Rahab” is a nickname for Egypt] 
   with your strong arm you scattered your enemies. 
11 The heavens are yours, and yours also the earth; 
   you founded the world and all that is in it. 
12 You created the north and the south; 
   Tabor and Hermon sing for joy at your name. 
13 Your arm is endued with power; 
   your hand is strong, your right hand exalted.

 14 Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; 
   love and faithfulness go before you. 
15 Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you, 
   who walk in the light of your presence, L
16 They rejoice in your name all day long; 
   they exult in your righteousness. 
17 For you are their glory and strength, 
   and by your favor you exalt our horn.  
18 Indeed, our shield belongs to the L
   our king to the Holy One of Israel.

So God is the great king.  He rules in heaven, he has a throne, and he rules over earth. He is faithful, and his love lasts forever. 

This is why people that worship the LORD are fortunate.  Did you notice v17?  You are their glory and strength.  God is our glory and strength.  What has any one of us got going for us in the world?  What is our glory and strength?  That we are God’s people.

The second third of the psalm, vv19-37, is a long quote from God.  The psalm takes what God said to David in 2 Samuel 7 (and 1 Chronicles 17) and expands on it poetically.

In 2 Samuel God spoke to David through the prophet Nathan, but in this psalm God spoke to his faithful people.  The quote makes this God’s words not to David, but to his faithful people, and the psalmist is one of them.  And we are also.

Pay attention to why David was a successful king.  It was entirely God’s doing.  The LORD is king in heaven, and rules earth.  If a king on earth is successful it is the LORD’s doing.  Don’t praise David for being a good king, praise God for David being a good king.  That’s how this psalm speaks.

One more thing: in 2 Samuel 7, when God made this promise to David about David’s descendants, he included this, speaking about David’s offspring on the throne.  This is a literal translation:

I will be a father to him, and he will be a son to me.  When he does wrong, I will punish him with the rod of men, with floggings inflicted by men. But my love will never be taken away from him.  (vv14-15a)

I will be a father to him, and he will be a son to me – this is not about the eternal Son of God.  Every offspring of David on the throne was understood to enter into a father-son kind of relationship with God when the young man became king.  This meant that God would support and guide and not reject, just as a father to a son.

 19 Once you spoke in a vision, 
   to your faithful people you said: 
“I have bestowed strength on a warrior; 
   I have raised up a young man from among the people. 
20 I have found David my servant; 
   with my sacred oil I have anointed him. 
21 My hand will sustain him; 
   surely my arm will strengthen him. 
22 No enemy will get the better of him; 
   no wicked person will oppress him. 
23 I will crush his foes before him 
   and strike down his adversaries. 
24 My faithful love will be with him, 
   and through my name his horn 
[his strength] will be exalted. 
25 I will set his hand over the sea, 
   his right hand over the rivers. 
26 He will call out to me, ‘You are my Father, 
   my God, the Rock my Savior.’ 
27 And I will appoint him to be my firstborn, 
   the most exalted of the kings of the earth. 
28 I will maintain my love to him forever
   and my covenant with him will never fail. 
29 I will establish his line forever
   his throne as long as the heavens endure.

This next part is important.  Even if David’s offspring sinned, God would punish them, but God said he would not take his love away from David’s sinning descendants.  David’s descendants did leave God, including young Jehoiachin, who did evil.

 30 “If his sons forsake my law 
   and do not follow my statutes, 
31 if they violate my decrees 
   and fail to keep my commands, 
32 I will punish their sin with the rod, 
   their iniquity with flogging; 
33 but I will not take my love from him, 
   nor will I ever betray my faithfulness
34 I will not violate my covenant 
   or alter what my lips have uttered. 
35 Once for all, I have sworn by my holiness— 
   and I will not lie to David— 
36 that his line will continue forever 
   and his throne endure before me like the sun; 
37 it will be established forever like the moon, 
   the faithful witness in the sky.”

That’s the second third of the psalm, which quotes God telling his faithful people about his promise to David.  Now we will read the last third. 

David’s line lasted about 400 years, and then the Babylonians came, in about 600 BCE.  The psalmist knows about God’s promise to David back in the year 1000 or so, and the psalmist lives after the Babylonians have come, and there is no longer any offspring of David on the throne.  There is no Jewish king at all. 

We don’t know how much after 600 the psalm was written.  It is quite possible that the psalmist lived through these events, someone alive at the same time as Daniel. 

But it could also be one or two hundred years later.  In any case, there is no David king on the throne.  Let’s read the last third.

 38 But you have rejected, you have spurned, 
   you have been very angry with your anointed one. 
39 You have renounced the covenant with your servant 
   and have defiled his crown in the dust. 
40 You have broken through all his walls 
   and reduced his strongholds to ruins. 
41 All who pass by have plundered him; 
   he has become the scorn of his neighbors. 
42 You have exalted the right hand of his foes; 
   you have made all his enemies rejoice. 
43 Indeed, you have turned back the edge of his sword 
   and have not supported him in battle. 
44 You have put an end to his splendor 
   and cast his throne to the ground. 
45 You have cut short the days of his youth; 
   you have covered him with a mantle of shame.

 46 How long, LORD? Will you hide yourself forever? 
   How long will your wrath burn like fire? 
47 Remember how fleeting is my life. 
   For what futility you have created all humanity! 
48 Who can live and not see death, 
   or who can escape the power of the grave? 
49 Lord, where is your former great love
   which in your faithfulness you swore to David? 
50 Remember, Lord, how your servant has been mocked, 
   how I bear in my heart the taunts of all the nations, 
51 the taunts with which your enemies, L
ORD, have mocked, 
   with which they have mocked every step of your anointed one. 

52 Praise be to the LORD forever! 
            Amen and Amen.

Verse 52 is probably not a part of the original psalm.  Long ago the Jews divided the 150 Psalms into five books of psalms.  The third book of psalms is Psalms 73-89, the fourth book of Psalms begins with Ps 90.

The first three books of psalms (see 41:13 and 72:18-19) all end with a call to praise the LORD, and then this unusual phrase Amen and Amen.  So v52 is part of the book of psalms, but most do not take v52 as part of the Psalm 89, and I will not either.

That means that Psalm 89 ends with the nations taunting and mocking every step of the anointed one.  It seems like the writer watched Jehoiachin walk in chains to Babylon. 

At the least, the psalm is composed from the view point of someone who watched that and remembered it.  I bear in my heart the taunts with which your enemies, LORD, mocked every step of your anointed one.

The psalmist cannot forget the taunts and mockery.  It is a pain he carries around in his heart.  But this is only a part of the story.  The bigger story is that God promised that this would never happen.

So we will read vv38-45 again, and then we’ll talk about how this psalm tells God he has broken his promises.

 38 But you have rejected, you have spurned, 
   you have been very angry with your anointed one. 
39 You have renounced the covenant with your servant 
   and have defiled his crown in the dust. 
40 You have broken through all his walls 
   and reduced his strongholds to ruins. 
41 All who pass by have plundered him; 
   he has become the scorn of his neighbors. 
42 You have exalted the right hand of his foes; 
   you have made all his enemies rejoice. 
43 Indeed, you have turned back the edge of his sword 
   and have not supported him in battle. 
44 You have put an end to his splendor 
   and cast his throne to the ground. 
45 You have cut short the days of his youth; 
   you have covered him with a mantle of shame.

The Boldness of vv38-45

In these lines, God was entirely responsible for what happened to the David king.  It was not the sinning king, nor his advisors, nor the Babylonians.  It was God.

The psalmist does not grovel; does not say, “it seems to me that you abandoned David’s line, but I could be wrong; does not say, “forgive me for saying this, but you are not keeping your promise.”

Rather, it is straight out: “you said you would never take your love from David’s line, but you did.  You said you would always support David’s line, but you have not.”

The psalm is completely direct about the gap between God’s promise and God’s actions.  You promised one thing, you did something very different.  And, all this after singing the praises of God’s faithfulness, and of his love that lasts forever!

The Reverence of vv38-45

The psalm does not insult God, never speaks against God’s character, never says, “you cannot be trusted after all.”  The psalmist never takes back what he said in the first third of the psalm, doesn’t take back God’s faithfulness, or his love that lasts forever.

Appeal to God’s Compassion in vv46-51

“How long, God?  Forever?  How long?  Remember that we don’t last long.  Where is your old love?  Remember the taunts and mockery which I carry in my heart.  Remember the taunts and mockery of your enemies against your anointed one.”  And so it ends.

In the last week I read this psalm through twice every evening.  At first I was struck by the boldness of vv38-45, how blunt they were toward God, especially after the build up of God’s faithfulness.  I thought, “Can a person really say this to God?”

What About vv1-18?  But in the last half of the week something else happened as I read through the psalm.  I wondered more and more about the first third of the psalm, vv1-18.  How can the psalm praise God so enthusiastically in vv1-18 when will say something so different later? 

It is because psalmist believes the start so wholeheartedly.  The psalm expresses total confidence in God’s faithfulness, and God’s love which lasts forever.  If we are going to take the end of the psalm at face value, let’s also take the beginning at face value.

The psalm teaches two things, and there is a painful gap between them.  On the one hand, God’s word and God’s character are completely faithful, and his love lasts forever.  On the other hand, God is not doing what he said he would do.

The psalm holds on to both, does not back off on either one.  The psalm does not say, “since God is faithful and loving, what happened to David’s line is not what I think it is.”  Nor does the psalm say, “since God turned against David’s line, God’s love and faithfulness are not what I think it is.”

There is a big tension between these two, and the psalm does not try to fix it.  It is God’s job to fix it, and the psalm ends by appealing to God’s compassion, and on that basis asking God to act according to his character and his words.

This psalm could be summarized in four phrases: “You are faithful, you made promises, you are ignoring your promises, please remember your promises.”

God acts in our lives.  Respond.  That assumption runs thick through this psalm.  God is acting in our high points and low points.  We can ignore him, act as if he’s distant and far away, but he’s not distant and far away.   Think of your high points and low points.  God?

God does not mind being held responsible for the dark things in our lives, the low points.  God would rather have that, than have us live as if he was not involved.  Respond to God.  He’s trying to get conversation going with us.  Talk to him.  Appeal to his compassion.

Did God actually break his promises concerning David?  I don’t know.  I do know that God has given this psalm to us, which means if we think God is not keeping his promises we should come and say it directly to him. 

God is not touchy, and this psalm does not show a lack of faith in God.  What offends God is our not taking his words seriously, or not taking his involvement in real life seriously.

Whether or not God is actually breaking a promise, this psalm is a good way to come to God if we think so.  If it seems that God is not keeping in your life something he promised us, tell him.  Use this psalm as a model, and tell him. 

Don’t ignore it, tell him.  God is faithful, he is not touchy, he acts in our lives.  God loves this psalm, because: it takes his words seriously; it takes real life seriously; and when the two don’t match up the psalm takes the problem to God.  Let’s do the same.  Amen.

Epilogue: after the teaching there is always a chance for the congregation to respond with what God was doing among them, and we have a discussion.  There was a good 15 minute response time after this sermon, and one question came up that has come up before in similar teachings, so I will repeat it here.

The question from the congregation went like this:  “This psalm is a kind of complaint, right?  What is the difference between this complaint, which God welcomes, and the kind of complaining that was so offensive to God, that the Israelites did in the wilderness?”

The difference is that when the Israelites were in trouble, when their circumstances showed evidence that God had abandoned them, they assumed that actually God had abandoned him, and so they walked away him and his plan. 

They said things like: “we should never have left Egypt.” Or, “why did God bring us out here to kill us?” Or, “why did you bring us out here to kill us, Moses (as if Moses was the one who brought them out of Egypt)?”  Or, “we had it better in Egypt.  We should choose a leader who will take us back to Egypt.”

For the Israelites, there was no tension between God’s character and words, on the one hand, and on the other hand, their frightening circumstances.  If their situation was difficult and dangerous then God had left them, and so they left God, and that was all there was to it.

Even so, God put up with this for quite a while.  In Numbers 14, when the 12 spies came back and said the Canaanites were too large and said Israel would be defeated if they attacked, and Israel rebelled against God, God said: “Enough, you’ve done this to me ten times.”

Ten times Israel was in trouble and thinking God had left them, and then God rescued them powerfully to show them that he had not left them.  Ten was enough for God.  These people simply would not hang onto his words and character when the situation was bad.

That is the kind of complaining that got Israel in trouble.  There are quite a few psalms that contain profound complaints against God.  But they all have the flavour of Ps 89. 

They are direct, and lay out a painful gap between God’s faithful words and his people’s situation.  But they always hang on to both.  God’s faithfulness still underlies the psalm.  In lament psalms God welcomes the complaint because the complainer still hangs on to God’s good promises.  The congregation of Israel sang these to God regularly.